The Nature Conservancy and agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Arkansas Natural Heritage and Game and Fish commissions focus on protecting plants and animals of all kinds, from storybook creatures like bears and eagles to obscure bugs and plants that most people have never heard of. Why, many may ask, does this matter? While species have always gone extinct naturally over millions of years, we’re now witnessing extinction rates thousands of times higher than the rate prior to human existence.
There are lots of cases to be made for conserving plants and animals. Some species may hold potential for undiscovered medicines; others can create a damaging ripple effect when they go missing from their native landscapes. The most convincing argument, however, might be that when we conserve the lands and waters all species need to survive, that includes humans, too. If we save rare mussels or fish, we also protect water quality for surrounding communities. If we save endangered birds, we also protect forests that clean our air and water and provide recreation that fuels our economy.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed 31 species in Arkansas as endangered. (The Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission’s state list of rare species includes more than 70 plants and animals.) Here are just a few of them.
Red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) – In the early 1900s, John James Audubon reported these birds were found “abundantly” in the pine forests of the southeastern United States. Historically, this woodpecker’s range extended from Florida to New Jersey and as far west as Texas and Oklahoma, with an original population of 1.5 million. Today it is estimated there are only 15,000 birds. Red-cockaded woodpeckers live in mature, open pine forests, which have been greatly reduced.
Interior least tern (Sterna antillarum athalassos) – This small water bird, formerly well distributed throughout the Mississippi River Valley, now survives only in scattered remnants. Its decline is a result of extensive water management projects that have affected their wetland habitat and the increased use of beaches and sandbars where they nest.
Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis) – In Arkansas, the largest hibernating colony of this small, insect-eating bat is at Sherfield Cave, which lies beneath The Nature Conservancy’s Smith Creek Preserve near the Buffalo National River. Indiana bats roost and give birth in hollow trees or under loose tree bark and feed in forested areas, making the conservation of forests as important as protecting the caves in which they hibernate. Arkansas is home to two other endangered bats – the Ozark big-eared bat and the gray myotis.
Hell Creek Cave Crayfish (Cambarus zophonastes) and Benton County Cave Crayfish (Cambarus aculabrum) – Both of these extremely rare crayfish are completely adapted to life underground – they have no eyes or skin pigmentation. Combined, these crayfish are known to live in just six subterranean sites in north Arkansas. As caverns and aquifers are often interconnected, protecting water quality above and below ground is critical to these creatures’ survival.
Pallid sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus albus) – Found in the Mississippi River and some of its tributaries, but now gone from the St. Francis River,, these large fish sport a flat, shovel-shaped snout. They are most often found in strong currents over firm gravel or sandy bottoms. Like salmon, they usually spawn in the upstream stretches of rivers, thus dams have greatly reduced their numbers, as has excessive sediment, which covers their preferred habitat. Pallid sturgeon are considered fine eating fish and their eggs are suitable for caviar, plus their large size makes them desirable trophy fish.
Speckled pocketbook (Lampsillis streckeri) – Historically, this mussel was found only in the Little Red River watershed of Arkansas. Today, it’s limited to just three of the river’s tributaries, where it lives in clear, constantly flowing water.
Rose Mathias Harperella (Ptilimnium nodosum) – This rare annual herb grows in the Virginias southwest to Alabama, and is also found in six counties in the Ouachita Mountain region of Arkansas. In July and August, the plant, which has a faint smell of dill and grows near rivers to nearly 4 inches in height, has broad clusters of small white flowers.
For more information about rare plant and animal species in Arkansas, visit naturalheritage.com.